FINDING THE MESSAGE: By now, the initial shock of the ghastly limo inferno in San Francisco has given way to sorrow and sober thoughts as members of the limousine industry revisit the details amongst themselves. The need to speculate and to suggest solutions in the wake of a shock remains entrenched in human nature, as a tour of media reports reveals disparate industry voices trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
There will be a cause, a reason for this, which could take weeks. Don’t expect a grand finale. Whatever the findings, they won’t bring any comfort. The A-Ha moment won’t satisfy.
I am not “going there,” nor trying to “help” the investigators from my armchair, but I will venture this: When the facts emerge, we will likely see a bizarre, twisted set of circumstances, sequences and factors that led to a stretch limousine erupting into flames while carrying a group of bachelorettes across a bridge.
This tragedy does not fit any prior templates. It didn’t result from a crash or an engine fire. The company is legal, insured, permitted — a member of the National Limousine Association. No major past violations, as far as we know, and certainly no illegal operators here. The Lincoln Town Car has an excellent reputation in the limousine industry for reliability and mechanical quality, although no vehicle model ever built is perfected in each unit. The bottom line is the accident simply defies logic.
All we know for sure is the stretch was overloaded and the chauffeur thought a passenger’s cry of “Smoke” meant a cigarette.
There will be plenty of time for analysis and approaches in the aftermath. In the meantime, the responsible way for the limousine industry is to respond, not to react.
Reactions are spastic, driven by emotions, not thought. Responses are the opposite, derived from patience, information and discernment. When dealing with the media horde, the issue is not whether to talk, it is a matter of HOW: Do you respond, or do you react? Avoiding the media is just as much of a reaction as scattershot snap speculations. Both are rooted in emotion. Such reactions only stir up the media hornets even more. But if you know how to respond, the media can work to your advantage.
What the industry now needs are the many reasoned voices of limousine operators who know their business, how it works and how they do it right — and shooting that message across the media sky. Operators nationwide this week have been contacted by local media outlets about limousines and the safety of vehicles. Some good examples include: This interview with San Francisco operator Rashad Dababo, inside one of his stretch limousines; an interview with NLA board director Diane Forgy, owner of Overland Limousine in Kansas City who spoke about limo buses following a death that occurred there the same night of the limousine fire; and this TV report featuring Shirleen Hutton, owner of Absolute Prestige Limousine in Grand Junction, Col .
In each example, the operators did not speculate nor opine. They simply told, in their own words, how things should and do run, and should and do work. They confidently held up high standards.
Amid the grand media inquisition into this drama, limousine operators have an opportunity to educate and to assert what still stands true about the industry. If you get contacted by the local media, here’s your scoop:
- Despite the recent accidents, a legal, well-maintained limousine driven by a trained chauffeur is still safer than taking a cab, hopping on a shuttle, riding a city bus, or riding along with a driver who’s “only had one or two drinks with dinner,” or even a sober teen-ager. On a celebratory night, a chauffeured vehicle is still the safest way to get around and get home. Every parent, every best man, every bachelorette needs to know this.
- The growing use of limousines and chauffeured vehicles have helped reduce drunken driving deaths. You can’t quantify it, but you know it. The decline in drunken driving stats over the last few decades didn’t just result from enforcement, awareness and fewer drinks. The limousine industry has done its share as well.
- The new Lincoln MKT Town Car stretch is stronger, safer, and roomier than its predecessor, the Town Car stretch. Leading coachbuilders have told me it is mechanically superior to the Town Car sedan. You need to be forming a solid, safe reputation for the carefully engineered MKT stretch. Now is a chance to showcase a new and better alternative to the public.
- Overall, chauffeurs are better trained than drivers, while limousine companies carry more and better insurance on their fleet vehicles. You are not well covered in a cab. The public generally does not know this.
- If someone asks about reserving a limousine or a limo bus, invite that customer to your company to see the vehicles. Welcome the public to your place of business. Tell them they can pick the exact vehicle they are comfortable with. Show them how you handle the vehicles. Point your safety and training features, and remind them of your company’s responsible practices. Be open and proud of what you have to offer. Reassure. Show your customers you care, and tell them you want to serve them again.
- Age of vehicles is not the central issue. A vehicle’s viability is all about maintenance, mileage and mechanics — the 3 Ms of good fleet vehicles. Hundreds of operators nationwide run classic and vintage vehicles for special occasions without incident.
- Industry associations, leaders and trade shows collectively support and strongly advocate for safety regulations, permitting, insurance, licensing and business legitimacy. LCT and the NLA have worked together as a team for decades promoting and updating the latest safety and training practices. A clean industry is a successful one.
Most important, you must pledge this: We will keep you safe.
-- Martin Romjue, LCT editor
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